It's hard to remember now, when every respectable household contains the Special Extended DVD Edition of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, but the celebrated trilogy was once considered a somewhat iffy proposition. That's part of the explanation for how Jackson, a rather obscure director from Kiwiland, was able to gain artistic control over what Newsweek once called "the most expensive and ambitious movie project in history." And by filming in New Zealand, where he had built his very own world-class production facility, Jackson was able to use the Pacific Ocean as a moat, protecting him from Hollywood interference. The result was that rare thing, a global film franchise that bears a personal stamp - an intimate epic.
But the trilogy's impact wasn't just felt onscreen. Offscreen, it both rewrote and refined the way these entertainment behemoths are produced and marketed, reaping billions of dollars in the process. "Rings has become a small industry in itself," Kristin Thompson writes in her new book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood. Thompson, 57, an independent film scholar long associated with the University of Wisconsin, was a Tolkien fan who was already working on a book about the print version when Fellowship of the Ring came out. And it was soon clear to her that the three-part cinematic adaptation was going to be "one of the most important films ever made." So she decided to take a seat on the front lines of history.
The Frodo Franchise offers an encyclopedic analysis of the Rings phenomenon, from conception to completion and beyond. And the thoroughness with which Thompson pursued the project would have impressed Tolkien himself. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, in The Last Tycoon, that "not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." Well, Thompson may not have kept the whole equation of pictures in her head, but it's hard to imagine asking her a question about The Lord of the Rings that she wouldn't readily know the answer to. And it's easy to imagine The Frodo Franchise playing a prominent role in the ]the Rings franchise (and franchising in general) is thought about for years to come.
I spoke with Thompson recently in the west-side home she shares with her husband, David Bordwell, who retired as the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin three years ago. Together, these two have had a major effect on the direction film studies has taken during the last generation, both in their individual work and in the two textbooks they've co-written, Film Art and Film History.
But first things first....
Do you speak Elvish?
No. I'm not one of those people who dress up and learn all the languages and that kind of thing. I don't go that far.
But you're a longtime Tolkien fan, right?
Absolutely, since 1965. When I was in high school, my best friend's mother was English. She knew about the Tolkien phenomenon in England, which hadn't really hit in the States. But the first Ballantine paperbacks were in stores, and she said, "That's supposed to be good." And I thought, "Well, why not?" I was already an Anglophile. So I got The Hobbit and really enjoyed it. Then I got The Lord of the Rings and became hooked. I still have first printings of a couple of those volumes.
Did you ever scribble "Frodo Lives" on a wall or anything?
No, but I did have a couple of "Frodo Lives" and "Go-Go Gandalf" buttons. And I had a poster-map of Middle-earth on my dorm-room wall. I also bought the recordings of Tolkien reading his own work. But even then, I was more of a scholar-fan. Instead of making costumes or learning the languages, I delved into Tolkien scholarship. There wasn't a whole lot at the time. Now, of course, it's just exploded, because once you have tenure, you can teach whatever you want.
I bet you even read those appendices, which trace, like, the genealogy of the dwarves.
[Chuckles.] Yes, I read the appendices. And I read The Silmarillion when it first came out. I think I've read pretty much all of Tolkien's fiction. And I still read The Lord of the Rings every seven or eight years, which is a lot less often than some people do, obviously, but when I got interested in film as an undergrad, I didn't have as much time for reading. There was the whole history of world cinema to catch up on.
Were you excited about the release of the films, having been both a fan of the books and a film scholar for so long?
The first one I went to with some trepidation, as did a lot of people. Tolkien had created a very rich world, and I wasn't sure how well it would all translate. Actually, not all of it did translate very well, in my opinion. That wasn't my idea of Lothlorien, for instance - too much of a greeting-card quality. And it's supposed to be yellow. "Lothlorien" means "The Golden Wood."
But that's one of the ways Jackson won over the Tolkien fans, wasn't it? By creating these lushly romantic, meticulously detailed settings?
Yes, the way he went about creating the look of the films was very intelligent. He got Alan Lee and John Howe, two famous Tolkien illustrators, to come and work on the films' production design, to guide all the other designers through the process. And what they came up with was both very unified and very familiar to Tolkien fans, a lot of whom own these very lavish illustrated editions of the books.
I notice you did a lot of interviews. How'd you get that kind of access?
Well, it wasn't easy. I think New Line, which produced the films, thought I was either going to dish dirt or write a puff book. But they went along with the idea just enough that I thought it was worth going down to New Zealand. This was the end of August, in 2003, and things were starting to wind down. All the actors had come back and done their pickup shooting in the period from April to July, so I'd missed that part of it. But there was still post-production work going on, and I figured there'd be a lot of people still working on the film, all in the same place, where I could talk to them. And everything would still be vivid enough in their minds that they'd remember a lot more than they were going to remember a few months later. So I made my first trip of three.
Were you able to spend much time with Jackson?
I was allowed a one-hour interview with him, but I also watched him do sound-mixing the first time I was there. The thing I was worried about with Peter was that he'd already done so many interviews, and he had this little persona he'd put on: "Oh, I'm the jolly hobbit." And I was afraid he'd do that with me. But he didn't. He was extremely straightforward, didn't make any effort to entertain me.
He sort of set a tone for the entire production, didn't he? He was barefoot most of the time, for instance. Was he wearing shoes when you interviewed him?
Yes, he was, actually. I interviewed him in the winter, so he was wearing shorts and boots and a jacket. But when I watched him mix sound, that was late October, the equivalent of late-April here, and he was barefoot then.
How much of a stretch was it for a studio like New Line to take on this project? Could they just idly drop over $300 million on....
They didn't know it would cost over $300 million when they signed up. But Bob Shaye, the head of New Line, was convinced that, based on the book's popularity, it was a sure thing, or at least close to a sure thing. It had a pre-sold audience. They were originally thinking that something like 25% of the total audience would be people who'd read the book. I'm sure it was far, far less than that.
Let's talk about The Frodo Franchise. How would you describe your approach? Institutional?
Yeah, "an institutional approach" is a pretty good way of putting it, because I basically wanted to talk about everything. One thing I noticed, after Fellowship was released, was that, okay, there were these videogames coming out from the top videogame company in the world, Electronic Arts. And when the extended-edition DVDs came out, there was just so much more supplementary material than anyone had ever provided before. So there was this whole new model for a DVD release. On top of that, the films' official website, lordoftherings.net, was noted for being very cutting edge. And I thought to myself, "Wow, every aspect of this is being done exactly the way Hollywood would love to do it every time, if they could."
You talk in the book about how franchises aren't a new phenomenon. But what has changed recently? What's changed with the economics of Hollywood so that they're so desperate for franchises now?
I think one of the things that's changed is that the budgets for films have gotten so huge that you can't make a profit on a film with box-office receipts alone. So you have to have other income. Traditionally, it's been television premieres and home video, but now there are just so many more outlets because of the digital revolution. You've got videogame consoles that play DVDs, and you've got the videogames themselves, which weren't really a big factor as product tie-ins until the late-'90s. And now you've got mobile content. The studios are busy trying to figure out ways to exploit the use of cell phones. Ring tones - who would have thought those would become a significant economic factor? But they have. It took awhile, but the studios finally realized that people actually like brands.
In what ways was The Lord of the Rings different from your average franchise?
Making all three films at once was a very daring move. It probably saved New Line over $200 million. And the Internet campaign was certainly different. They were very savvy about cooperating, in a very calculated way, with many, many websites that had already existed or popped up immediately after the first film came out. I corresponded with someone at TheForce.net, which is the equivalent of TheOneRing.net, only for Star Wars, and he said, "You know, we envy TheOneRing.net, because neither George Lucas nor Twentieth-Century Fox has ever done anything like that."
Jackson had sort of an open-door policy with the fans, didn't he?
Yes, although he came to it only gradually. Because he was a fan himself, and because he knew Harry Knowles, founder of the big, big fan site Ain't It Cool News, he was open to the idea that you might actually communicate with the fans, if only through typed-out answers to questions on a website. And that was pretty unusual at the time. In fact, I don't know of any director who'd done that kind of thing before.
You do a good job of exploring the far-flung realms of fandom. And you seem to have the opposite take that William Shatner had in that Saturday Night Live skit, where he told the Trekkies to get a life.
I guess I started out knowing that most people thought this stuff was kind of silly and these people must be maladjusted or something, escaping into a fantasy world. But it turns out they're very sociable, on the whole. They go to fan conventions. They have parties. They're constantly emailing each other, and so forth. Basically, fandom is a way of forming communities.
FPS is fictional-person slash, slash being a type of fan fiction with homoerotic content. It takes characters who aren't necessarily identified as having any sexual orientation in the original book and comes up with stories about them. Tolkien, of course, doesn't have much romance or sex in it. So there's a lot of room for speculation there, and a lot of male characters who can be matched with each other.
Aragorn and Legolas tend to get paired up, don't they?
Yes, also Boromir. And lots of elves, lots of pretty elves.
You've been quoted as saying The Lord of the Rings has had the greatest impact of any movie in the history of cinema. How so?
In terms of innovation, for one thing. I mean, what they did with the DVD supplements for the Extended Editions was quite extraordinary. The amount of footage that was actually shot of the filmmaking process, and not just during principal photography but all through the preparation for the films as well. These DVDs are still held up as the standard against which other DVDs are measured.
There's also the impact on New Zealand. The idea of a film impacting an entire country - both its economy and the world's perception of it - is pretty phenomenal. It's this isolated little country that many people couldn't find on a map before this. Then all of a sudden, everybody's desperate to go there.
So-called Wellywood, which Jackson has a huge financial stake in, has become a bona fide alternative to Hollywood as a film-production center, hasn't it? Should Hollywood be worried?
Yeah, I think it probably should, because you've got the unions controlling Hollywood so thoroughly and commanding such high salaries. And New Zealand doesn't have unions. There's also all that beautiful scenery. And so far the exchange rate is holding.
So what's up with The Hobbit?
It was last January when Bob Shaye made his announcement in an interview that Peter Jackson would never direct The Hobbit for New Line. Jackson, at that time, had a lawsuit pending against New Line, which is very complicated, but it had to do with his share of the income from Fellowship of the Ring and some of the ancillaries. But Shaye has subsequently backtracked a little bit - in a very ambiguous way, of course. And MGM, which owns the distribution rights, has said it wants Peter Jackson to direct and hopes something can be worked out.
Does Peter Jackson want Peter Jackson to direct?
He certainly did at one time. He's said many times that he's thought about how he would approach it. Of course, he's pretended indifference and said he had other projects to work on, but he doesn't really have all that many firm projects. He's about to start principal photography on his adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but that's a fairly small project.
Maybe he's leaving his schedule open?
I think he's probably making it as easy as possible to take on The Hobbit, either as director or possibly just as producer, which I think would not be totally thrilling to fans, but they would probably accept that.
For more information see frodofranchise.com/blog.